June 17, 2020

What I've been watching: April—May, 2020

Shows I’ve Watched:

Shows I’ve Bought:
The Ernie Kovacs Show
The Green Hornet
Richard Diamond
Appointment with Destiny

Imentioned a couple of months ago, the last time we visited this little corner of the blogosphere world, that I'd been watching some episodes of Ernie Kovacs' 1956 summer replacement show. Or, to be more precise (precision being a trademark of the competent writer, and also yours truly), I'd listed it in the category of stuff I'd bought. That's only partially accurate; I haven't been buying much of anything lately, having once again joined the ranks of the unemployed, but since it would be a pretty one-sided look at my tastes in video if I only told you what I was watching (not to mention I'd run out of material sooner rather than later), I've taken to including in the "bought" category things I've discovered on YouTube or some other streaming platform. In this case, that includes several Kovacs episodes from the wonderful YouTube channel Free the Kinescopes! (exclamation point theirs).

I've written about Kovacs before; he's one of my favorites, and the shows at Free the Kinescopes! don't disappoint. I've got the two volumes of Kovacs material from Shout! Factory—exclamation points are apparently a recurring theme this month—and, while it's been a few years since I've seen them, I think most of of what we have here is new material. Not only that, but unlike the shows from Shout!, these appear to be for the most part intact, including the musical and dancing numbers that are often omitted due to the expense of acquiring the rights. The primary benefit of this is the chance for us to hear more of Edie Adams, Kovacs' wife and sidekick, who has a lovely singing voice to go with her comedic talents. It makes her more of a partner in the success of Kovacs' shows, as well as giving us a chance to see some of Ernie's guest stars, such as singer Bill Hayes. If you're a Kovacs fan, I urge you to go and check these out. If not, why aren't you?

t  t  t

Batman was, in many ways, the quintessential television series of the 1960s. Like Kovacs, there was a zaniness about the program, a use of color and graphics and camera angles that hadn't been seen on the tube before, at least not with such exposure. It introduced, or at least made popular, a new genre for television: camp. And while its flame burned out relatively quickly—as is often the case with trendsetters and trailblazers—its influence continued, and continues, to be felt.

I'd been old enough to watch the original run of the show when it started back in 1966, but I remember it more clearly during its afterschool broadcasts later on. I liked it, as far as I can recall, although I didn't go crazy over it as so many people did. I viewed it primarily as a comedy, not taking in the irony or the spoofs it entailed, and was quite confused when the Riddler switched from Frank Gorshin to John Astin and then back again. (There were two Catwomen too; what's up with that?) I also remember the feature length movie that was made with the original cast, including yet a third Catwoman, the one and only onscreen appearance of Lee Meriwether; I watched thaHe int one on a Saturday night in a motel room in the college town near the World's Worst Town™, and it was one of the few moments of relief in an otherwise dismal trip. Despite that, however, there are no symptoms of PTSD involved in watching these episodes, in glorious Blu-ray.

Television in 1966 wasn't all that much different from how it had been in previous years. The highest-rated series for the 1965-66 season included programs like Bonanza, The Lucy Show, Andy Griffith and Gomer Pyle. Series like Bewitched and Hogan's Heroes, although they had unorthdox concepts, were essentially conventional (though very good) sitcoms. Batmani, on the other hand, wasn't anything like the two series it replaced on ABC, Ozzie & Harriet and Shindig (remember, it aired twice a week). It was colorful and creative, it showed that crime could be funny, it brought back the concept of the cliffhanger, and at a time when the industry was honing its dramatic chops on the great social issues of the day (see here for example), it emphasized how television, first and foremost, is entertainment. If anything, you might say it built on the legacy of The Beverly Hillbillies, a show that was often criticized for pandering to the lowest common audience denominator, but was often far more clever than it let on.

Unfortunately, the combination of Batman and the James Bond movies had a negative impact on a lot of TV shows of the time, series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that took a sharp turn toward the ridiculous and were never able to find their way back. It also created an expectation for The Green Hornet that couldn't be met—wasn't even attempted, in fact. (More about that momentarily.) I'd suggest, though, that you can draw a somewhat straight line from Batman to The Gong Show and Police Squad!, even though the latter played it totally straight and the former defies description.  Batman made television's theater of the abusurd possible.

There’s something delightful and audacious about the show’s efforts to duplicate comic book adventure in a live-action setting, such as the Joker’s (Cesar Romero) escape from prison via a spring-powered catapult buried under the prison yard. We never actually see it happen, but thanks to a cloud of smoke, a well-timed sound effect, and a shot of the platform balancing on the spring after it's shot the Joker over the prison walls. If you've ever seen a Road Runner cartoon, you know how these things work. And, of course the use of the superimposed POWs and BIFFs and whatnot just make the scenes POP off the screen.

Watching it again after all these years, I'm struck by several things. One is that Frank Gorshin was a hell of an actor; we may remember him best for his manic portrayal of the Riddler (and his terrible riddles), but in the times where he lapses into one of his soliloquies while the members of his gang look on, he displays an intensity suggesting something much deeper, namely the existence of a real person under the mask and ridiculous costume. At times like this Gorshin's Riddler seems to retreat into a private world of his own, unaware there's anyone in the room with him, lost in thoughts of who-knows-what. Maybe he's pondering how he came to be like this; I know the comics probably deal with this, but the series doesn't, and it's the only kind of introspection we're likely to get.

Alan Napier, who plays Alfred, the loyal butler, is really good too. He's the soul of discretion, Jeeves for the superhero set, and in the best tradition of English butlers, it's impossible to imagine him getting rattled by anything. It's clear, to me at least, that Bruce and Dick wouldn't be able to get away with anything around Aunt Harriet without Alfred there to facilitate things. And Neil Hamilton really sells the mock-seriousness of Commissioner Gordon, as he has with so many characters in so many classic TV shows of the time. (By the way, have you ever looked at his office? It takes up half a floor in City Hall. I can only imagine what the Mayor's office must look like, but if it doesn't have a spiral staircase and a hot tub on the upper level, I'd be surprised.) And Burgess Meredith looks like he's just having fun playing the Penguin, another in his resume of quirky characters.

Another thing that's intriguing about watching the show with contemporary eyes is its a sustained attack on the parole system. The police, the prison warden, even Batman himself, are all hilariously portrayed as true believers in the rehabilitative powers of incarceration, even though any time anyone gets out of prison, they go right back to their life of crime. Whether this was intended as a sincere but exaggerated belief (and in the War on Poverty-era social programs of the '60s, it would have been all the rage), or if the writers were lampooning the obvious consequences of naive rehabilitators being taken advantage of by hardened criminals, I'm not sure. Either way, it makes Gotham's officials look even more useless than usual, and when the pendulum swings the other way in the Dark Knight movies, it comes across as the logical reaction.

I haven't mentioned the two leads, Adam West and Burt Ward. I wrote about West here, and I don't think I need to add anything more to that. As for Ward, what do you use to describe a straight man in a show where everything's a straight line? I'm not sure, but the wrong Robin would have been disasterous, and Ward is not wrong.

t  t  t

Van Williams was the junior member of the firm on Bourbon Street Beat; he started out as a law student learning the detective trade and helping answer the phones, but by the end of the show's first (and only) season, he'd come into his own as both a law graduate and a full-fledged detective. When BSB left the air, Williams's character, Kenny Madison, was spun off into another Warner Bros. detective series, Surfside 6. As one of the leads, along with Troy Donahue, Van was now an equal partner in detecting, fighting bad guys, and romancing the gorgeous women always around in these shows. Williams appeared in a third series, The Tycoon, opposite Walter Brennan, before embarking on a role that could have made him a much bigger star: millionaire newspaper publisher Britt Reid, also known as The Green Hornet. Watching him in this series makes me feel as if I've seen him grow up before my eyes, from cub detective to business tycoon and superhero, and I take a great deal of pride in saying that. Williams is a poised, confident businessman, and a cool and collected crimefighter; it's nice to see that he's become a success.

It just wouldn't have been right to review Batman without looking at the series that shared its universe, if not its sensibilities; in fact, I make a point of watching the two of them back-to-back on Friday evenings. The Green Hornet was a product of the Batman phenomenon, and was birthed by William Dozier, who gave us the much-loved Caped Crusader. Unfortunately, and understandably, the Hornet (as he's called by the bad guys) never lives up to Batman's success, for several reasons. One of them is not Al Hirt's fantastic rendition of the show's theme, "Flight of the Bumblebee," given a great arrangement by Sinatra's arranger, Billy May. Another is the dynamic presence of Bruce Lee as Kato, Reid's valet and the Hornet's partner-in-crime. With few exceptions, Lee never really has enough to do in this series, and it's obvious why: he'd have most of the bad guys unconscious in a couple of minutes, leaving us to suffer through the rest of the episode watching Lloyd Gough as Mike, the newspaper's "ace" crime reporter, who keeps trying to prove that the Hornet is the master criminal everyone believes him to be, except for Reid's secretary, Lenore Case. (Wende Wagner) and the D.A. (Walter Brooke). We don't see any of them that much in the series, although Lenore does get put in jeopardy in a couple of episodes, but you have to know going in that any series where Bruce Lee gets number two billing isn't going to afford you much screen time.

There's nothing at all wrong with Williams' performance as Reid. The challenge, other than that the Hornet's completely overshadowed by his supposed sidekick (as would be the case no matter who played Reid) is the decision to play the show straight. Understand, I don't have a problem with that at all; I think The Green Hornet is a lot of fun, and perhaps if it wasn't so closely identified with Batman (there were two crossovers, with each crime-fighting duo making an appearance on the other's show) it would have worked. But while the criminals du jour can be suitably expansive, both Reid and the Hornet are presented as serious, thoughtful, and realistic (given the perimeters of the show's premise). I don't think it was what viewers expected (or were led to expect), with the result that the sting left The Green Hornet after 26 episodes. If this reads like a lukewarm review, you shouldn't take it that way; as I said, I like The Green Hornet a lot. An hour spent with Batman and The Green Hornet is what you need on a Friday evening when you're more interested in entertainment than dealing with the weight of the world, and these days that's praiseworthy indeed. TV  


  1. I was 11 when Batman came out. For the preteen set it was the only show to see and talk about. Batman was about the characters. Green Hornet was really about the car.

  2. No singling out of Julie Newmar for special praise? There still hasn't been a better Catwoman.

    1. Well, I didn't want to get too far ahead of myself since I'm only in season one, but I agree that she has a paricularly satisfying feline way about her.

  3. To tie Ernie Kovacs & Batman together, did you see Ernie as part of the Gotham City Humor Hall of Fame in one of the episodes featuring the Joker, played by Caeser Romero, who was a panelist on Ernie's game show Take a Good Look? I think that Ernie would have made a great Batman villiain, perhaps using his Matzo Hepplewhie character

    1. Oh, that's a great idea to have Matzo meet Batman! Yes, I did notice that statue there, which I thought was not only very appropriate but a very discerning item to include. And it's funny that you mention Take a Good Look, since I'll be touching on that next month! I can't say any more, though...

  4. Over at Eventually Supertrain, when Dan was doing Green Hornet, I had occasion to weigh in with some references I had here at home about that show, which I now have an excuse to share with you.

    I always thought of GH as being the last of the Warner Bros Detective shows, in line with 77 Sunset Strip, Bourbon Street Beat, SurfSide 6, and the others; for evidence, see the credits - and note how many WB alumni came over to 20th Fox when Bill Dozier set up shop there in '66.

    When Dozier launched Green Hornet, he intended it to be an hour-long series, to air at a later timeslot (probably 9/8 Central).
    Dozier didn't get his wish in '66; when he tried to get a second season from ABC the next year, he wrote an extensive memo to the network, detailing exactly how he would do that.
    Martin Grams did a GH compendium in which he reprints Dozier's memo in toto (it's Appendix G on page 777), which you ought to read sometime.
    Anyway, ABC said no, and the show went down with the Batman crossover, followed by what Dan dubbed "the Jiffy-Pop Pirates" in that final two-parter, and there you have it.

    We seem to have covered the other stuff elsewhere, So There Too.

  5. Julie Newmar was unavailable in 1967, because she was filming the movie 'McKenna's Gold'. Holy box office!
    Frank Gorshin wanted more money for season 2, and returned for less in season 3. He was replaced by Maurice Evans, as a one-shot villain with a similar gimmick, known as 'The Puzzler', and then by Astin as the 'other Riddler'.

  6. I was six when Batman premiered, and I took it absolutely straight and loved it. I watched it again when the DVDs came out, and was surprised to find that I didn't enjoy it at all. I guess sometimes we really do put away childish things. I will say, however, that I concur on Frank Gorshin. He was legitimately frightening when I was six, and watching him again when I was much older, I found him legitimately frightening still.

  7. I wa watching an episode of a 60s TV show that I just bought & I realized that one of the guest stars appeared as a guest star in the series that replaced it. Who was the person? She was a popular singer & both shows were mentioned in your post.

  8. The answer was Lesley Gore who appeared on Shindig & later appeared in Batman's as one of the Catwoman's gang.

    1. I know exactly which episode you're talking about! I should have figured it out.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!